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Jim Aylward: Train ride completed a young man's passage to real life

Jim Aylward at age 21 when he was in the Army.

Courtesy of Jim Aylward

Jim Aylward at age 21 when he was in the Army.

We didn't have air-conditioning. It wasn't that we were deprived. It was that hardly anyone had air-conditioning. It was the 1930s and on humid summer nights, I would roll my bed to the window, put my pillow on the windowsill and try to catch a breeze.

Lying there in the night, I would listen to the trains in the distance, imagining where they were going and who was sitting in those plush red seats, heading for adventure. What I didn't realize then was they were just freight trains moving stuff around in the dark.

To me, they were exciting sounds of life; people doing things, going somewhere, living — all the stuff I couldn't do because I was just a kid. And I had to do what I was told and respect my elders and speak only when spoken to and stand up straight and clean behind my ears, whatever that was all about.

In those days, there were no kids who looked like I did. I was tall and skinny, a walking set of bones and tendons. The so-called kids in the movies were in their 30s or more. They made high school films then, and all the stars playing teens were old and looked it.

One time I was in my room upstairs, writing stuff in what I thought of as a "book," and I heard my mother and my Aunt Rheta chatting downstairs about romantic movie stars. Aunt Rheta said, "Charles Boyer can put his shoes under my bed anytime!" And they howled.

Charles Boyer? He was 50 if he was a day. Old. My mother then surprised me by saying she liked Ronald Coleman. To me, he was a really old guy, and he talked funny.

All the businessmen who ran everything in movies of the day were played by Edward Arnold and Lionel Barrymore. Old guys. And it was true in real life as well. Mr. Bell, who ran Bell's Hardware, was very old — glasses and gray hair. He married Miss Cannon, my third-grade teacher, and she was no spring chicken.

When I was slightly older, Aunt Bertha lived with us for a while. She was a nanny to rich kids, and between jobs she would stay with us and nanny to me. She told me always to remember that anything I wanted to do in life I could do if I just applied myself. I believed her, and it made me feel better. But I was still just a child against a world of old people.

When I was a bigger kid, still trying to crack the adult world, I decided I wanted to go into business mowing lawns, gardening and weeding. I rode on my bike to the local newspaper office, saw the editor and told him I wanted to start my business.

"How much will an ad cost me?" I asked.

He said he wouldn't charge me anything, and he ran the ad every week on the front page in a box: "Reliable boy wants lawns to mow — James Aylward, Stoneham 6-0929-W."

My customers ran the gamut. One picked me up at my house in his Lincoln Continental and drove me to his house in the next town. His wife made me lunch and iced tea. He then gave me five dollars! That was a lot of money in those days.

One client had a lawn the size of New Zealand and kept pushing the curtains back to glare at me as I worked. When I finished, he asked how much he owed. I said, "Five dollars."

He was astounded and said, "I'm going to call your mother!"

Finally, the day came when I was able to get on the train with the red plush seats, the train I knew would take me away to adventure, to real life. I was almost alone that morning as the train left the little town, passed slowly by the Jell-O plant, stretched its way into the big city and brought me finally to the Army.

My mother had said, "Jimmy, tell them about your heart murmur."

I never did.

New Port Richey resident Jim Aylward was formerly a nationally syndicated columnist and radio host in New York City. Write him in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

Jim Aylward: Train ride completed a young man's passage to real life 07/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 27, 2009 4:30am]
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